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Climate Change and Culture Wars: Rhetoric Can’t Mask Reality 

How the right-wing elites of politics and media want you to give up on the climate crisis

A man inspects a house burned in a wildfire in Bejaia Province, Algeria, on 25 July 2023. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

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Something that would otherwise be thought of as remarkable happened on 24 July.

GB News presenter Neil Oliver stared down a camera lens and accused the BBC of reporting the heatwave then sweeping the southern Mediterranean and North Africa incorrectly. Why the former archaeologist, who has been widely accused of propagating antisemitic views, said this, or what his evidence was for claiming so, remains unclear. 

To clarify, and there can’t be any doubt over this, Oliver’s on-air accusation was arrant nonsense.

However, increasingly a right-wing cadre is taking shape across much of the traditional and new broadcast media that appears to be, not simply arguing for a delay in tackling climate change, but even denying the need for it. 

Furthermore, it appears to be working. 

As the islands of Rhodes, Corfu and much of North Africa burnt, few tourists, or their hosts, were discussing Neil Oliver’s seemingly divinely inspired omniscience. 

Reporting from North Africa, along the border between Tunisia and Algeria, where 34 people lost their lives to the fires, I got to experience the consequences of the devastating impact of the climate crisis. 

Speaking to many who had seen their homes reduced to charcoal, all talked of a fire that, in the final moments, had moved with lightning speed. The flames, they said, reached as high as the fir trees that had previously surrounded their homes. 

I asked one survivor what the sound of the fire had been like. He played me a recording. It wasn’t so much a roar as a howl. 

“The fire came very quickly with the wind,” Samir Hmissi told me from his burnt-out kitchen, “It was like someone had thrown gasoline on it.”


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He continued, “People who are seventy or eighty, it’s the first time they’ve seen this,” he said.

Nevertheless, despite these experiences and countless like them, many in the air-conditioned television studios of the City of London, SE1 as well as their fellow travellers in right-wing press’ opinion columns claim that this is entirely normal.

They’re not. In Tunis, typical temperatures for July should be closer to 33C. The current heatwave, exacerbated by man-made climate change, has made matters far worse, pushing up the temperature to peaks of close to 50C.. 

I understand that can be difficult to imagine. Picture a bath, heated far beyond your typical comfort level, then imagine that’s the air. 

Now imagine having to work in it.

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The truth is, it’s a culture war and, like so many past conflicts, an entirely confected one. 

Moreover, as with past culture wars, we’re once more seeing establishment figures, such as the multi-millionaire Richard Tice, former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and Conservative peer, Sir Jacob Rees Mogg among other ghouls of the right corral the legitimate concerns of those lower on the socio-economic ladder and harness them to their own increasingly apocalyptic ends. 

There’s little new in this. Since the 1970s, campaigners and scientists have offered climate deniers the opportunity to place bets on the direction of the environment’s travel. None have been taken up. With good cause, the cognitive psychologist Professor Stephan Lewandowsky explained. They’d have lost. 

“The more we look at the issue of climate denial, the more we find it as being popular among the right wing and the libertarian. To take action on addressing climate change will involve such things as government intervention, taxation and changing their way of life,” instead, they prefer to search for faults in the science, he said. 

Nevertheless, the columnists of the right-wing press and the hosts of the new channels of Talk TV and GB News still find an audience. “What we’re really seeing are classic cases of denial, and I can sympathise with that, to a degree,” he said, “People don’t want to accept it. It’s not entirely unreasonable. Some people denied the existence of Covid as they were dying of it. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist than to deal with the trauma,” he said. 

The most recent census showed that 61 per cent of UK adults cited climate change as one of the most important issues facing the UK today. According to Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh of Bath University and a specialist advisor to the House of Lords’ environment and climate change committee, those numbers increase during events such as Cop26 or last year’s heatwave. 

Nevertheless, a disproportionate number of politicians and opinion makers in the UK are pushing a culture war based on strategies of delay and denial, all the while the world burns. 

All the while, those who are most economically vulnerable are targeted by the millionaire climate sceptics of the right wing.


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“When people are suffering, of course, they’re more open to the suggestion that ‘elites’ are aligning against them,” Professor Whitmarsh said.

“People need an acknowledgement of that suffering and their concerns over the future,” she said, noting that the empty space where empathy for more vulnerable people’s worries over the cost of the climate crisis was being occupied by the populists and opportunists of the right.

“There is a real need for political leadership on this issue,” she continued, “People feel that these targets and measures are being imposed upon them. Time and time again, we’ve seen that if you take people with you, you have a much higher chance of success,” she said. 

“A lot of this comes down to what we call Motivated Reasoning. That is, when you have a worldview or a deeply held belief that’s close to a core part of your identity, you will deliberately ignore evidence that contradicts it and look for evidence to reinforce it. For instance, Europe is heating but, this summer, the UK is rainy, so that must prove climate science is bogus,” she said. 

Whatever the cause of their concerns, their opinions carry real-world consequences. 

In the recent Ruislip byelection, concerns over Ultra Low Emissions Zone, (ULEZ) a policy initiative initially put forward by former London Mayor, Boris Johnson, was credited with Labour’s narrow defeat in the vote. Casting a cynical eye over the runes and spying opportunity in Labour’s defeat, the current prime minister, Rishin Sunak, has declared himself a “friend of the motorist”. Moreover, hoping to avoid the wipeout at the next election, Sunak has effectively binged on issuing North Sea exploration licences with an enthusiasm that would cause a drunk at last orders to blush.

Even the man supposed to be his principal opponent, Keir Starmer has faced accusations of wavering on what had once been understood to be his cast iron climate commitments. 

Currently, there are scientists around the world making an urgent case for action. All argue that the cost of taking action now will be nothing compared to that of taking action later. They have assembled a wealth of data and evidence. The case, they say, is urgent. 

A former archaeologist and full-time conspiracy theorist does not know better. 

Ofcom and GB News have yet to respond to a request to comment on some of the points raised in this article. 

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